By Maria Maxham
River Forest's Plan Commission, spurred by state mandate, is working to bring more affordable housing to the village. How to do that in a built-up community dominated by single-family homes, whether to describe affordable housing as a burden or opportunity and raising the potential of more coach houses all came up Jan. 21 at a meeting of the volunteer commission.
Commission members reviewed the working draft of an affordable housing plan put together by John Houseal, village planning consultant.
River Forest needs to add 39 affordable housing units to bring its overall percentage of affordable housing up to the required 10 percent. River Forest is currently at nine percent.
According to the Affordable Housing Planning and Appeals Act of Illinois (AHPAA), any municipality with less than 10 percent affordable housing is required to adopt a plan to remedy its lack of moderately-priced housing.
A 2018 report from the Illinois Housing Development Authority's (IHDA) pegged River Forest at nine percent versus the required 10 percent. IDHA data shows that, of a total 3,788 total housing units in River Forest, 340 meet the criteria for being affordable.
Challenges surrounding affordable housing, said Houseal in his presentation, exist for several reasons. The village is a 100 percent built-out community, with 70 percent of the land zoned and developed as single family detached residential. As such, there is limited land available for development, and when there are opportunities, the land is very expensive. Therefore, creating new affordable single-family units is likely not a viable solution.
The best option for River Forest, said Houseal, is multi-family and mixed-use development, where the mixed-use portion of the project could help offset the lower rents or purchase price of affordable units.
Commissioner Roberto Armalas asked if tear-down taxes, in addition to incentives, should be part of the plan. He asked how the village could preserve affordable units it already has if a developer decided to come in and take them down.
In response, Commissioner Ori Gottlieb said he felt conflicted about tear-down taxes because he wants to see property improvement, which might take some units out of the affordable category. "That's our dilemma," he said.
"Diversity – whatever diversity means – is a good thing," said Gottlieb. "But on the other hand, compared to how River Forest was 100 years ago, I think it's great." He added, "As much as I think affordable housing to some extent is good, it sounds almost as if it's bad if we tear down bad places." Bringing up zoning incentives for developers he said, "How much are we willing to sacrifice the character [of the village] in order to have 39 more [affordable housing] units in the village?"
Houseal said Gottlieb's comments zeroed in on the big questions before the commission: What is the role of local government in telling property owners they can't sell their property because they have affordable units and the village needs to protect that? And if a property with moderate priced units is sold, and the village requires a one-to-one build of affordable units, how much would be given to the new owner in terms of incentives? When do the incentives make a new project too big? And what impact does that have on the community, the neighbors, the character of the village?
"That dance is what we're trying to figure out," said Houseal. "Once we figure it out, we can write plan or code. We must make policy decisions before we write the detail."
Commissioner Keary Cragan said some of that policy discussion – and wording in the plan – should center around why the village wants affordable housing not simply from a state-mandated point of view. She mentioned "an incredible number of benefits" affordable housing brings to a village, such as allowing residents to age in place and providing less of a burden on schools.
Cragan also took issue with some wording of the plan, especially in a section reading "affordable housing is an economic burden shared by all residents." Stating that had a negative tone, she commented that the rhetoric should be flipped: If residents can take advantage of public dollars through a TIF district, for example, they should also be providing a benefit like moderately priced housing.
Additionally, Cragan said affordable housing doesn't have to be ugly. It can be beautiful and unrecognizable as "affordable." Philip Moeller, River Forest resident and developer of Forest Oaks, an affordable housing development underway in Forest Park, spoke up at the meeting, inviting people to come by and check out the project, one which he said is an example of attractive and affordable housing.
Cragan also brought up accessory dwelling units, such as apartments over garages, as ways to bring moderately priced housing to the 70 percent of the village that is zoned and built as single dwelling family homes. Chairman David Crosby agreed, saying that accessory dwelling units might be "the only way to inject affordable housing into single family housing" in River Forest.
Houseal will go through the commissioners' comments and make changes to the plan, including: Removing or rewriting poorly worded phrases such as calling affordable housing "an economic burden"; beef up the section that talks about the benefits of affordable housing; add plan development amendments, including zoning incentives; and recommend accessory dwelling unit language. He will get a new draft of the plan to the commission in the next few weeks. After that, the commission will review the changes and ultimately present recommendations to the village board.
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